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Veeramangai Velu Nachiyar

Shubendra G | Updated on January 18, 2019 Published on January 18, 2019

The weather was cool and the sky overcast. The rains were still a few weeks away. The camp set up a few miles away from Sivaganga fort was surprisingly quiet. The only noise was from the wind buffeting the sides of the tent. Rani Velu Nachiyar and Syed Karki were the only occupants of the tent, the largest in the camp. Yet another impasse confronted them in their endeavour to recapture Sivaganga.

“Syed Sahib, I am extremely grateful to you and Nawab Hyder Ali for helping us come right up to the gates of my beloved Sivaganga. We have overcome many impossible obstacles. The gates of Sivaganga are the last of the hurdles. I request you again to scale the fort walls rather than camp here.”

“My Queen, nothing is more desirous to me than to see our swords soaked in English blood,” Karki, the commandant of Dindigul, replied. “But scaling the walls would be suicidal. We would lose everything we have gained in the last few months. We don’t have any siege equipment and the English are well-equipped with arms and ammunition to push us back if we try to scale the walls.

“The English have been pinned down by Nawab Hyder Ali. Our intelligence tells us that the English will not be sending any reinforcements to Sivaganga. We need to wait for our siege equipment before we make the final assault, my Queen.”

The disappointment on Rani Velu’s face was palpable. The commandant didn’t want to dishearten her.

“My Queen, the only other way we can take the fort is if we fight the English in the open. I don’t think they would come out to fight us. We can even take the fight to the English once we are inside the fort. But for that, we need the gates to be opened for us. If we can open the gates of the fort, I promise you, Sivaganga will be yours.”

There was no change in Rani Velu’s face.

“Thank you, Syed Sahib. Let’s wait for the siege equipment.”

Karki took leave, leaving the Queen alone in her tent.

It had been eight arduous years since Rani Velu escaped from Sivaganga. Her happy days with her husband, King Muthu Vaduganatha Thevar, and her infant daughter, Vellachi, in the kingdom of Sivaganga ended brutally one evening in the temple of Kalaiyar Koil.

The sinister Nawab of Arcot, Wallajah, swept down to Sivaganga with the help of his new allies, the English. The brave army of the Thevar was outnumbered and, in the ensuing battle in Kalaiyar Koil, the Thevar was martyred defending his kingdom. Scores of Thevar’s men were killed, but Wallajah was not satisfied. He wanted to extinguish the last of the line of the Thevar and immediately sought out the Queen and her daughter.

Luckily, Rani Velu and her infant daughter were in the nearby Kollangudi temple at the time of the attack. The loyal Marthadu brothers fighting alongside Thevar had rushed to Kollangudi and taken the Queen and her entourage away towards Dindigul. Rani Velu didn’t even get to see the last remains of her husband.

To ensure the Queen’s safe getaway, her loyal bodyguard Udaiyal and other female warriors had stayed behind in Kollangudi to stall the advance of Wallajah. But the sheer number of Wallajah’s men overwhelmed these valiant women and Udaiyal was captured. Despite being tortured, the brave Udaiyal did not reveal the Queen’s whereabouts. In anger, Wallajah had her head cut off.

When the news of Udaiyal’s death and valour reached the fleeing Queen, she immediately swore to vanquish the Nawab of Arcot and take back Sivaganga for Udaiyal and her beloved husband. In memory of Udaiyal’s supreme sacrifice, Rani Velu raised an all-women army in her name.

As she wandered helplessly from village to village in the forests surrounding Dindigul, Rani Velu realised she needed allies and support to take back Sivaganga from the English, to whom the Nawab had bequeathed it. While the Marthadu brothers started raising an army amongst the loyalists in the region, it would not be enough to take on the English. Dindigul belonged to the Mysore Nawab, Hyder Ali. There was no love lost between Hyder Ali and Wallajah. Rani Velu decided to seek the assistance of Hyder Ali and made a perilous journey to Mysore. Her skills in Urdu impressed Hyder Ali and he graciously offered her the services of Syed Karki, besides 5,000 highly trained infantry and 5,000 cavalry troops to augment her army.

With this army, Rani Velu steadily reconquered Sivaganga province piece by piece until they reached its fort, where the English were holed up. Rani Velu had no siege equipment to breach the fort.

 

As she remained deep in thought after Karki left her tent, Kuyili, the commander-in-chief of the Udaiyal army, came in.

“What bothers you, my Queen?”

“We are so close to reclaiming our home and yet so far. Syed Sahib says the walls of Sivaganga cannot be breached without siege equipment. He advises us to wait for it. I can’t wait that long, Kuyili. We need to take Sivaganga now.”

“Well, we need to convince Syed Sahib otherwise then.”

“No, Kuyili, Syed Sahib is an experienced general. He knows what he is saying, and he senses my disappointment. All that he can offer is to take the fort if the gates are opened to him from the inside.”

Kuyili listened intently.

“Well, my Queen, if Syed Sahib wants the gates opened, we can do it for him.”

Rani Velu looked at Kuyili in surprise.

“How will you open the gates, Kuyili?”

“Vijayadashami is just a few days away. All the ladies from the nearby villages will be visiting Kalaiyar Koil. We can mingle among them and get inside. I will lead a small group of girls from our Udaiyal army and infiltrate the fort with concealed weapons. We will open the gates for you from the inside, my Queen.”

A smile broke on Rani Velu’s face.

“You always find a way, Kuyili. You raise the name of Udaiyal ever higher”

Kuyili prepared a small crack team to infiltrate Sivaganga fort. Vijayadashami day dawned and a stream of women from the surrounding villages entered Sivaganga. Kuyili and her soldiers got inside along with them.

The festivities were low-key due to the ongoing strife but the big festival in the night was to go ahead as planned. All the women congregated at the main temple.

The rituals began and, at the assigned hour, Kuyili gave out a war cry:

“Arise, my sisters!”

The Udaiyal women rose instantly and unsheathed their swords. They rushed boldly at the English soldiers on guard and fought their way forward to the gate. Kuyili spied the ammunition depot right behind the temple.

Also nearby was a cauldron filled with ghee for the deity’s worship. She picked up the cauldron and doused herself with the ghee. Sword in hand, she charged towards the depot and slashed at the sepoys guarding the front. Picking up the torch placed at the entrance, she lit herself.

Crying “For my Queen!”, Kuyili entered the ammunition depot.

Rani Velu and her army, which had moved close to the fort and were hiding in wait for the attack, suddenly heard a huge explosion from the fort. Within minutes, the gates of the fort opened and a couple of Udaiyal women on horseback rode to where Rani Velu’s army lay concealed.

“My Queen! My Queen! The gates are open. We need to get in. The ammunition depot of the English has been blown up. The English are without ammunition now. This is the right time to attack,” one of the women told Rani Velu.

“Good, my daughter! Where is Kuyili?” she asked.

The Udaiyal women cast their eyes down.

“Our commander sacrificed herself in order to destroy the ammunition of the English. She lit herself and blew up the ammunition depot.”

The devastating news singed Rani Velu. She remained stunned on her horse.

Time was of the essence. Syed Karki approached the Queen. “We can’t let her sacrifice go in vain, my Queen. Now is the time to attack. We are awaiting your orders”

Rani Velu regained her composure. Nodding in agreement, “Forward, my children! Forward for Udaiyal! Forward for Kuyili!”

As the fire spread inside the fort, the men and women of Rani Velu surged towards the open gates of Sivaganga.

In the year 1780, Rani Velu Nachiyar defeated the English and took back her home, avenging the death of her husband and her loyal soldiers Udaiyal and Kuyili. She went on to rule Sivaganga for the next 10 years before handing over the kingdom to her daughter Vellachi.

 

Shubendra G is an expert on military history of 18th and 19th century India. His debut novel Hyder Ali will be published by Macmillan

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Published on January 18, 2019
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